A Jewish Approach to the Plastic Straw Debate

Image: A person drinks from a plastic straw. (Anemone123/Pixabay)

Every argument that is for [the sake of] heaven’s name, it is destined to endure. But if it is not for [the sake of] heaven’s name — it is not destined to endure. What is [an example of an argument] for [the sake of] heaven’s name? The argument of Hillel and Shammai. What is [an example of an argument] not for [the sake of] heaven’s name? The argument of Korach and all of his congregation. — Pirkei Avot 5:17

The recent disagreement between some environmental activists and disability activists about efforts to ban plastic straws has been food for thought lately.

In brief, environmental activists are concerned about the impact that plastic straws have on the marine environment, especially on the animals in that environment, and they’d like to see an outright ban on plastic straws. Disability activists have pointed out that some people with disabilities need a straw to drink liquids, and that neither the biodegradable paper straws nor rigid metal straws meet their needs. The paper straws tend to biodegrade while still in use, and the metal straws are dangerous for a person with a palsy or an uncertain grip.

That much is a rather standard ethical problem – how are we going to meet two competing sets of legitimate needs?

Let’s look at the issue through a Jewish lens, because there are a number of Jewish values involved. First, the values:

Bal Tashchit – “Do not destroy” is a staple in halakhah (Jewish Law.) It is based in Deuteronomy 20:19–20. The command is given in the context of wartime and forbids the destruction of fruit trees in order to assist in a siege. This principle expands to cover many environmental issues, and it certainly applies here, since (1) the production of plastic is destructive to the environment and (2) plastic waste is destructive to the marine environment.

There is also a strong Jewish tradition for preserving God’s creation, as in this midrash:

13) Look at God’s work – for who can straighten what He has twisted? (Ecclesiastes 7:13). When the Blessed Holy One created the first human, He took him and led him round all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him: “Look at My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are! And all that I have created, it was for you that I created it. Pay attention that you do not corrupt and destroy My world: if you corrupt it, there is no one to repair it after you. — Kohelet Rabbah 7:13:1

We have to balance those values with the value expressed in this commandment. All human beings are infinitely precious and worthy of care:

(26) And God said, “Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness. — Genesis 1:26

And specifically, regarding disabled persons, we have very precise direction:

Do not curse the deaf, and do not put a stumbling-block before the blind, but fear your God: I am YHVH. — Leviticus 19:14

With regard to access to nourishment, including liquids:

When you have eaten and are satisfied, you shall bless the Eternal your God for the good land which He gave you. — Deuteronomy 8:10

This last verse describes the act of consumption of nourishment as a complete cycle. First “eat” then “be satisfied” and the “bless.” It is wrong to say to a subset of customers, “This is a place of nourishment, but you will receive no satisfaction, because you are unable to drink without a straw.”

Finally, there is the issue of hospitality. Starbucks management would tell you that they are in “the hospitality business.” They refer to their customers as “guests.” While I realize that Starbucks is not a Jewish business and certainly is not run on halakhic principles, when I hear those words, I cannot help but think of the Jewish value of hachnasat orchim, hospitality. Our role model for hospitality is Abraham our father himself, who ran to greet guests and serve them despite the fact that he was recovering from circumcision. The rabbis underlined the very high value we put on hospitality:

Rav Yehuda said in the name of  Rav: Hospitality toward guests is greater than receiving the Divine Presence, as when Abraham invited his guests it is written: “And he said: Lord, if now I have found favor in Your sight, please pass not from Your servant” (Genesis 18:3). — Shabbat 127a

Conclusion: At this time, it is not possible to meet both sets of needs perfectly. Disabled persons need plastic straws in order to consume liquids. But it is also true that the oceans are in a terrible state. Here are some possible solutions to the dilemma:

  1. If a total ban on the straws is important to the environmentalists, then research needs to be done first to find a true and adequate substitute for the plastic straws. Until then, saying to an entire group of people, “You may only eat at home” is not reasonable.
  2. In the meantime, until a truly adequate substitute is found, those for whom the straws are merely a convenience can help by choosing not to consume plastic straws.
  3. Businesses could supply plastic straws by request but without comment. A server saying  “Oh, so you hate sea turtles!” is attempting to shame the guest. Shaming is cruel and it is generally ineffective in changing behavior.

There are several opportunities for learning within this debate, should we choose to take them:

  1. It is important to learn about the impact of our consumption habits on the seas.
  2.  It is also important to learn about the impact of rigid regulations on people with disabilities. Accomodations for disabilities rarely come in one-size-fits-all packages.

If we are willing to have what our ancestors called “an argument for the sake of heaven’s name,” in which we seek the truth of all aspects of a discussion, and hope to find the best possible solution to a dilemma, we can accomplish wonders. If, on the other hand, we seek to score points, and “win” some illusory prize, we will accomplish nothing,

The choice is ours.




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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at http://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

16 thoughts on “A Jewish Approach to the Plastic Straw Debate”

  1. Well said, and so applicable to many other situations. Thank you for the thoughtful insights into complicated issues and decisions.

      1. I wasn’t necessarily thinking of any specific issue, but the overall mood and attitude in our country right now. It is so easy to see just one side of an issue and believe that our position is the “right” or most logical one. Even if it is objectively the best position (and that’s not necessarily clear, either!) we need more respectful dialogue and discussions for the sake of heaven, rather than name calling and “right fighting.”

  2. Disabled people need the straws. Have the server ask if a straw is needed?

    I still like the biodegradable straw.

    1. In my experience, paper straws sometimes begin to dissolve in liquids even while one is using them – and I hear from friends who have to use straws for all drinks that they are really bad in hot drinks. Ultimately I think a biodegradeable straw is the best answer, but they need to develop better ones.

  3. Thanks. Well-expressed competing needs. For now, as I have my re-usable metal straw in my backpack, I agree that servers need to ask for individual needs.

  4. I love that Jewish teaching is always nuanced and must consider every angle. Personally, I don’t need a straw of any kind so it is on my head to decline to use one. However, I have dear friends who REQUIRE straws. So they need to be available.

  5. Thank you for adding the Jewish perspective. The debate has gotten much too heated, and sometimes hurtful to those of us living with disabilities! All we ask is more thoughtful inclusiveness regarding the issue.

    1. I agree with you that it has become much too heated. I think that both sides of the debate are feeling an existential threat, and the current political situation certainly doesn’t help.

  6. I think in practice it may also need to be weighed that apparently plastic straws specifically, are a very minor issue in terms of amount, compared to many other kinds of plastic production and waste. So even a noticable environmental impact may be questionable.

    What also would need to be considered would be alternative ways of handling the actually underlying problem that may have less detrimental impact on some people. Like enforcing actual recycling rather than outright bans.

    Both kinds of analysis are staple in (constitutional) secular law at least here, and might also weigh in into halachic or Jewish ethical/philosophic discussion.

  7. Reblogged this on Celebrating Individual Abilities and commented:
    Drawing on the wisdom of the Talmud and the nuanced arguments of halakhah, a Rabbi presents a thoughtful analysis of the current debate on the banning of plastic straws and how that would affect people with disabilities.

  8. The problem I have with this is that it falsely assumes that both sides have an equal stake. You take at face value the environmentalists’ position on the importance of banning straws but the reality is that straw bans are fundamentally ineffective at reducing plastic because all they do is ban straws.

    You have given equal weight to an empty gesture campaign and the disabled people who will suffer for it.

    While your conclusions still ultimately support disability access, I fear that your uncritical acceptance of false straw ban rhetoric will end up normalizing campaigns that do little to nothing and force marginalized people to pay the price.

    1. One reason this argument has blown up to the degree that it has is that both environmentalists and disabled people are feeling an existential threat in the current political climate, and specifically from the hostile behavior of the Trump Administration. Dismissing one side of the argument as “an empty gesture” at the outset would not address the emotions fueling the vitriol.

      I chose to give both sides an equal hearing because they seemed to be equally strongly felt. Often when people feel very strongly, they can’t move forward constructively until they feel heard and seen.

      My taking both sides of the argument at face value acknowledges the urgency of both sets of perceptions.

  9. I’d suggest that plastic straws be available for those who need them – by prescription, as an assistive medical device. That could meet the needs of those with disabilities while limiting casual use/disposal.

  10. I love how you’ve given plenty of scriptures! Seeing things from a religious perspective is an excellent way of displaying an important topic, and teaching religiously. I have a website about plastic too and about what it’s doing to our environment. Could you review it and give me tips?

    Also could you please help promote my petition to get single use plastic banned.

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